Brushing Up on Decor : Artist Maria del Carmen Calvo's House Looks Like One of Her Paintings


It isn't often you get the chance to walk into a painting, but when you enter the San Juan Capistrano home of artist Maria del Carmen Calvo and her husband, Walter Henry, you do just that. The light and paint in the house are manipulated with the same artist's eye that creates her impressionistic paintings.

When Calvo describes the way she designed her home environment she could just as easily be talking about her paintings. "In the house I do everything little by little. I do one thing, live with it or change it and then do something else. It becomes a whole relationship that's always changing.

"I like things to be very natural. I want my house to be a place you can live in. I don't like everything perfect. If things are too neat, I mess them up," Calvo said laughing. "Seriously, I don't like to live in a sterile house. I love beautiful things, but I like them in a very simple environment. If I don't have a harmony of beautiful things around me, I can't paint. And the things I live with have to complement me and my husband."

Certainly Calvo's house reflects her Spanish birthplace through an ambience that suggest Spain, rather than a stage set for "Carmen." The entrance to the house is reached through lacy, wrought-iron gates that she designed. Walking over the brick courtyard, you arrive at a modest-looking house that Calvo has transformed into a painterly oasis. The front doors are from Mexico and they have been stripped of the dark finish so famous in Spain.

"People change," said Calvo. "When I came from Spain 30 years ago, I came from a place of dark furniture. Artists keep changing, so now I like things lighter. Around 10 years ago I started stripping the finishes off to get to the natural light color. I just finished doing the dining-room table."

It works so well, this simple lightening of the wood. The carving becomes even more prominent, while the true nature of the wood shows through. Besides the main doors, Calvo lightened the dining room chairs, the antique Spanish armoire in the bathroom and several old carved doors leading to the bedroom and the outside garden. "Sometimes I add a little gold leafing for a different look," she added.

For Calvo, her house is a constant source of inspiration for her paintings. "I see something that interests me, and I paint that. Sometimes I make still-lifes from the flowers and objects I have in the house."

The house, built in an L-shape, has an extensive lawn in back that looks out on the ocean. Here are Calvo's roses, bougainvillea, lilacs, ivy and other flowers. Flowers are picked daily and put into vases throughout the house, to both add color and serenity to the decor. She raises orchids in her studio and has more than 50 of them throughout the house, the not-in-bloom ones sometimes found in the shower.

"When I bought this house it was Tudor on the outside and early Hawaiian on the inside, even with a black resin bar. I lightened everything up through paint and skylights," Calvo said.

Certainly the house is anything but dark now. Using the same color palette she uses in her paintings, she has created a house of muted colors: violets, pinks, salmons, mauves, whites. Her large, impressionistic canvases fill the walls and are echoed by the real flowers spilling out of vases. The whole atmosphere is one of lushness and sensuality.

Besides the great infusion of color, the house also is planned to make the best use of light. In the morning, the sun streams through the beveled-glass windows on either side of the Spanish-style fireplace, while in the afternoon light comes through the French doors along the back of the house.

The morning light is important in the kitchen, where Calvo spends a lot of time cooking, and in the white-infused master bedroom and adjoining glassed-in sitting room.

"In the mid-afternoon, the bathroom gets light that filters through the floor-to-ceiling strips of violet glass in it. The color comes into the living room and streaks the carpet violet. I love playing with the colors of the flowers and the colors of the light to get different effects. Lighting is so important because it creates shapes. And I like the light to be perfect in the room where you will be at a certain time of the day," she said.

The living room especially takes on a warm patina at night. The furniture is the kind you sink into like a feather bed, while all around the room are paintings, small sculptures and flowers. In one area, Calvo sculpted a shell-like shelf into the wall and it holds one of her prize possessions, a small 17th-Century Flemish polychrome angel. "I got it from a friend of mine 20 years ago. I love it very much," she said in her Spanish-accented English.

Calvo white-washed the living room ceilings with a touch of pink to take away from the starkness of pure white. In the family room, she painted a pale lavender over the existing grass cloth wallpaper.

"The house reflects what I like to paint with. The living room is pale peaches, then comes to the kitchen with the blues and then the dining room area with its violets, ending with an aubergine wall holding a painting of bright, white Casablanca lilies."

The final room is her artist's studio which is white to give her the reflected light she needs to paint with. Even in this area, Calvo brings her love of color and tactile images. She paints on an antique Oriental rug surrounded by her preliminary sketches for works in progress, her easels holding colorful paintings of still-lifes or nudes and her Dalmatian, Picasso, watches her from his seat on a side chair draped with a Spanish shawl.

"Picasso sees me as I really am when I'm painting, in jeans and messy. I like to work early in the morning when the light comes through the skylights and it's totally quiet."

Right now Calvo is working on a special body of work for a new exhibition in 1993. "I've sold over 2,500 paintings through the years, starting with my days on La Cienega and Robertson boulevards in Los Angeles." Today her works are still sought after by corporations and private collectors alike.

"The nice thing about living in a house is that so many people come here with a good many ideas that you respect. I'm very open to other people's opinions, even though I'm also strong in mine. I also like to listen. This place is me, but also it has the influences of many others."

Maybe that is what makes this house so special.

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